Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Lake Ontario - The Welland Canal

Cabin Fever called the traffic officer again last night and the crew were given every indication that we would be allowed into the Welland Canal with the shift change at 7 this morning. Ana and I wake up shortly after 5 to get the boat ready for departure and make a coffee before taking off. The entrance reporting station is only about 3 miles away, but we want to give ourselves plenty of time in case there are any issues.

We make a wrong turn into what looks like a pleasure craft reporting center, but it is not, so we exit and motor a little further up and see the blue telephone booth and wall to tie to, which already has one other sailboat there waiting. I go over an introduce myself and during our conversation I learn that he’s done the Welland Canal at least 20 times and is also a larger boat so I’m hoping he will be the guy on the wall and we can get the better rafted position. Soon after this, my main man Adam arrives, looking surprisingly fresh after all the high-powered craft beer we consumed last night. I hope he’s thinking the same about me.

Another sailboat arrives, as well as Cabin Fever. Tony has been called by the traffic officer and told we have to wait for another power boat in the marina that’s running late. The straggler, in a boat called “Sea U Sooner” arrives and after speaking with him we find out they are late because he went for a bike ride this morning and his wife went for a walk to McDonalds to get morning coffee. The other boats are not too impressed.

The green lights on the gate finally flash on and we sail into lock number 1. There are eight locks in total on the Welland and I’m very happy to be doing this return journey during the daylight hours. What I learned on the downward journey with my dad and brothers is that after a day full of walking in the sun, drinking, goofing around and eating huge meals, the last thing you feel like doing is traversing the Welland Canal. And since we’ve been told the upward run is many times more treacherous than the downward one, I’m feeling a little bit anxious, but at least better prepared with a bit of experience under my belt.

I luck out and get positioned off the wall and rafted against the larger sailboat. The two powerboats are together, with Sea U Sooner on the wall and Cabin Fever in the rafted position and the third sailboat is on his own. The first three locks are surprisingly easy – the water comes in quite slowly so the resulting current and churn is minimal. We are told by the lock operator that they have installed electronics in these that slow down the fill for pleasure crafts. We are held up for a while at lock 2 waiting for a gigantic freighter to be dropped down, so we tie the boats up on the wall, get off, and throw the Frisbee around with the kids, while many of the other boaters make coffee and wander from boat to boat meeting each other. When the freighter comes out of the gate it sends a series of waves down the channel which start to rock the boats. Ana notices that the swim platform of Sea U Sooner is getting caught on a rubber bumper on the concrete and she runs over there to tell them, but the crew isn’t paying attention. As their boat gets rocked by the waves the swim platform gets caught and there’s a sickening crunch as it gets mashed up on the wall. We finally enter the lock and there we find a viewing platform, and we look up to see Adam’s whole family up there waving down at us!

Locks 4, 5, and 6 are what is known as “Flight Locks” and are twinned and consecutive so that boats can be going up and down at the same time. We begin to enter but have to wait for a family of geese swimming around in the water to decide if they are coming up with us or not. Once in, we are directed to raft all three sailboats together, and we get the easiest third position. These locks are much more turbulent and some of the crew from the outside boats climb over to the boat on the wall to push against the wall and keep the boat from being mashed into the concreate from the current driving us into it. We make it through these three and then lock 7 is a relatively easy one again.
One of the most interesting aspects of this canal is the level of collaboration that is required between the pleasure crafts. When I was doing my research on the Welland Canal before this trip I got a copy of the St. Lawrence Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide, which is meant to tell you everything you need to know to transit the canal. I also searched the web for everything I could find on this topic from fellow boaters – blogs, chatroom postings, articles – but I simply could not find that much. The cooperation between boats was the most critical element in safeguarding the people and vessels, and it was not even mentioned anywhere. I am planning to write a detailed article on the experience to help others who are planning to do it, so I expect collaboration to be a key focus of the article.

After lock 7 is a long, leisurely passage of 16 miles over flat, calm water. Adam and I crack a cold beer to celebrate making it through the toughest part of the crossing unscathed. For the first time in 14 days it begins to rain, and the temperature drops, but in truth, it feels refreshing and good. Adam, Ana and I have a lively chat, like old friends, and there is no gap in the conversation.

The engineering achievements of this canal extend beyond the locks, as this part of the trip takes us over two vehicle tunnels and the Welland River, which somehow drops 30 feet to flow beneath the canal, only to emerge and continue on the other side. This is the fourth version of the canal to be built - over time is has been enlarged, expanded, and had its route changed. We also pass beneath several lift bridges and Adam tells us about an incident in 2001 when an intoxicated bridge operator accidentally dropped the bridge onto an incoming ship, which ripped off the wheelhouse and smoke stack and caused it to catch fire. It took two days to extinguish the blaze and the ship was destroyed. Here is a link to an amazing video of the incident.

We reach the eighth and final lock, which is very different from the rest as it has a vertical rise of only about 4 feet (as opposed to 45 to 48 in the others) but is extremely long. Here, a worker walks along the concrete lock wall with a long handled net and we are asked to drop in our proof of payment (it costs $200 one way if you pay in advance, or $240 if you pay at the reporting station when you arrive) and a completed form that was given to us back in lock 1 to record the boat information, passengers on board, and so on.

With that, we sail out and the upward passage of the Welland Canal is complete! It took us a total of 10 hours to make the 23 mile trip. The exit is right in the heart of downtown Port Colborne and we sail the short distance over to the Sugarloaf marina to get a slip for the night. Adam’s dad Tim arrives and we have a beer together and then say goodbye to them and thank Adam for helping us out.

The two crews meet to discuss dinner plans and decide to eat on board and then go for a short walk. Magnus and Stella are happy to be on solid ground, so they disappear for half an hour while Ana and I make a modest dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches and salad. Sugarloaf marina is always full of excitement and tonight is no exception as there’s a wedding happening at the pavilion. We all walk over to the wedding to see if we can crash it, but our weary faces and canal stained clothing really makes us stand out from the well-dressed and enthusiastic wedding guests, so we just loiter around for a song or two and then continue on our way. We wander through the park and grounds near the marina and find a great place for a phot, so Angela lends Stella her phone and she snaps a nice picture of everybody.

We finish up the evening with a nightcap on Cabin Fever and then Ken and Sheila head back to Brantford while the rest of us head directly to bed.

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